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‘But we must try!’: Cao Shunli, the unsilenceable legacy

    Join our photo exhibition to pay tribute to Cao Shunli and honour Chinese, Tibetan, Uyghur and Hong Kong defenders who hold the Chinese government accountable. 

    Location: Geneva, Switzerland

    Date: 14 March 2024

    Our impact may be large, may be small, and may be nothing. But we must try. It is our duty to the dispossessed and it is the right of civil society.’ 
    – Cao Shunli

    Ten years ago, Chinese woman human rights defender Cao Shunli was a victim of deadly reprisals for engaging with the United Nations. 

    The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and partners invite you to attend a photo exhibition on 14 March 2024, at Place des Nations to honour her memory. 

    The photo exhibition will also display cases of Chinese, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Hong Kong human rights defenders who have been targeted for upholding the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

    You are invited to join us beneath the tents at Place des Nations on this occasion. 

    Who was Cao Shunli? 

    Cao Shunli was a brave Chinese woman human rights defender and lawyer. She campaigned for the meaningful consultation and contribution of independent civil society to the Chinese government’s national reports for its first and second Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR). On 14 September 2013, one month before this review, while on her way to Geneva to attend a human rights training organised by ISHR and CHRD, she was detained and forcibly disappeared by Chinese authorities for five weeks. When she resurfaced in custody in October 2013, she had been charged with ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’, and  it was evident that she was experiencing serious medical issues in detention. Despite repeated international calls for her urgent release over months of being denied adequate medical treatment, Cao Shunli died of multiple organ failure on 14 March 2014, having been granted bail for medical reasons just days before her death. Cao Shunli was one of the finalists of the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2014. 

    To this day, Chinese authorities have ignored appeals seeking accountability for Cao’s death, including repeated calls by UN Special Procedures experts in 2014 and 2019 for a full investigation into this ‘deadly reprisal’. Her case remains one of the longest-standing unresolved cases in the UN Secretary-General’s annual reports on reprisals. March 2024 marks the 10th anniversary of Cao Shunli’s death. A decade ago, when ISHR and many other human rights groups sought to observe a moment of silence at the Human Rights Council in her memory, the Chinese delegation, together with other delegations, disrupted the session for an hour and a half. China is consistently one of the most frequent perpetrators of reprisals against individuals or groups engaging with the United Nations. Frequently mentioned alongside Saudi Arabia, it has the second highest number of reprisals cases and situations reported by the UN Secretary-General since 2010.

    Cao Shunli’s story is a paradigmatic case of reprisals, not only because of her belief in the importance of civil society participation in UN mechanisms, but also due to the array of severe human rights abuses she endured because of this belief, ranging from being barred from exiting her own country, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, lack of due process, torture, ill-treatment, and denial of adequate medical care, to subsequent death in custody without any accountability for these abuses.